Perfect podcasting – interviewing
Dr Kat Arney, Cancer Research UK
Before you begin
There’s more to getting a good interview than simply pointing a mic at
someone and pressing “record”.
What do you want?
Before you even go to meet your interviewee, think about what you want to
get out of the interview. You should make sure that you are properly briefed
about the person – What do they do? What do you want them to tell you
about? Why are they interesting? What’s the story you’re trying to cover?
Who else do you need to interview? A good interviewer should know much
more background information than they ever let on, so you can ask just the
right “dumb” question.
Getting the setup right
Unless you’re deliberately trying to record background noise (for example, to
give the impression of being in a lab or a pub) then it’s worth making an effort
to find the quietest place you can for an interview. The best kind of room is
small to medium-sized, with lots of soft furnishings.
Rooms with no furnishings and lots of hard surfaces can sound very tinny.
And places like stair wells or bathrooms can have strange echoes – unless
you’re after that effect Outside can also work if you want a nice ambient feel,
but watch out for strange noises such as building works, fountains, screaming
kids, airplanes etc (unless you want that...).
Avoid anywhere with background music – not only does it make it
impossible to edit your footage but it may also breach copyright. And also
beware of things like ticking or chiming clocks, loud air-con units, humming
fridges or computers etc etc. And – of course – switch off mobile phones
before you start, and ask your interviewee to do the same. If it’s on silent, it
can still interfere with recording equipment, so off is best.
The very first question you should ask is “Please can you introduce yourself.”
If you’re recording a lot of interviews, it’s all too easy to forget who was who.
And you can also double-check how they like to refer to themselves.
Some interviewers come with a list of questions, and you can do this if it
makes you feel more comfortable. But make sure you have some flexibility –
and remember to actually listen to the answers! There’s nothing more
infuriating for an interviewee to have given a detailed answer and then be
asked exactly the same question again. This is a difficult skill, and much
harder than it sounds. It will come with practice.
Always try to ask open questions, beginning with words like “How…” “Why…”
“What…” Also remember to only ask one question per question – avoid
rambling, multi-clause questions. Also beware of talking too much, “showing
off” in your questions (you’re there to ask them to talk), or putting words in
Some good questions to ask are:
• “Tell me about your work/situation?”
• “What have you achieved so far/recently?”
• “What does [our charity’s] support mean to you?”
• “What would make a difference to you? How has our support made a
• “How did you feel when you did X,Y,Z…”
• And at the end, it’s a good idea to ask “Anything else you’d like to add/feel
we haven’t covered?” Then you can construct a question that leads them
You can always ask people the same question again, asking for less (or
more) technical detail, or if there was a loud noise (e.g. police sirens), or if
they fluffed it up. I often find that the first answer is usually the best, but
sometimes people need a couple of goes to get “warmed up” and get the
words in the right order in their brain. Even if you’re going over the same
thing for the tenth time, don’t get stressed – and also keep reassuring your
Also, if you plan to keep your questions in the finished audio, make sure that
you’ve asked them ‘cleanly’ and coherently. If you fluff asking a question, just
stop, take a deep breath, collect your thoughts and start again. There’s no
point having great answers if your questions are fluffed, as you’ll lose the
listener’s attention. It’s worth spending time to get a good recording in the
end, rather than get home and find you can’t use it.
Finally, remember that it can be very stressful being interviewed. Try to stay
calm and patient, and don’t get aggressive. You’re not Jeremy Paxman!
It is tempting to record for ages, to make sure you get everything you need.
But think about how much footage you actually want – how long do you want
your final audio to be? It is tedious and difficult to edit a 20 minute interview
down to 2 minutes. Lots will be left out, and it will take you a long time to
choose the best bits.
For example, if you want two minutes of finished audio content, don’t record
for much longer than 5 minutes. You should already have a good idea of
what you want to find out, and will know when the interviewee has said it all.
And if someone goes off on a tangent that you know you’ll never use, just
steer them back. But also there’s a fine balance between knowing what you
want, and being open to exploring unexpected answers.
The technical bit
Before you set off for the interview, make sure that you have all the bits you
need – for example, audio recorder, spare batteries and mains power cable,
microphone and cable, stand, wind-shield, address of where you’re going,
phone number of interviewee in case of emergency... Also check that you
have sufficient space on your recording device - it’s good practice to remove
files as you go. Also, check your recorder is working properly!
When making any recording, it’s vital to get the levels right. Level is not the
same as volume – it is the absolute “loudness” of your recording. If your
levels are too low, your recording will be inaudible. If they are too high, it will
“peak” and sound distorted and generally awful. It is well worth taking time to
make sure your levels are right, because you won’t be able to improve a
recording that is far too quiet, or distorted, on the computer later.
Read the instruction manual of your recording device, to make sure that you
know how to adjust the recording levels (sometimes called “gain”). Many
recorders have moving bars that indicate level, and a light or other signal that
indicates when it’s “peaking”.
Test your recording equipment with your interviewee to make sure that you
are consistently getting a good level (depending on your device), and not
peaking. Good questions to ask are “What did you have for breakfast?” “How
was your journey here?”. Don’t ask anything related to the interview you want
to do, as they might give you a wonderful answer and you won’t be ready to
When people make “hard” syllables such as “p” or “b”, they force air through
their lips. If a mic is placed too close to someone’s mouth, these syllables will
come across as loud “pops” in the recording. It is very difficult to clean these
up in the editing process, and much better to try and avoid popping altogether.
This can be done by avoiding holding the mic too close to the mouth and
making sure people talk across, rather than directly into, the mic.
Check using headphones to make sure you’re avoiding popping - some
people are more “pop-y” than others. And if you are speaking into a
microphone, you can also make an effort not to over-emphasise these
If you are recording in a very noisy environment, you may need to hold the
mic very close to the person – but watch out for popping, and keep an eye on
the levels to make sure they aren’t peaking. If at all possible, try and get
Once you are happy with your levels, you can record. Check the instruction
manual for your device. Many recorders have a ‘pre-recording’ setting where
you can check the levels – so when it’s time to record, make sure you are
actually recording! Look for numbers counting down/up, and always double-
check that’s you’re really rolling.
It is good practice to monitor your recordings as you are making them, using
headphones. It is also a really good idea to check the recording BEFORE you
leave the interview. If something has gone wrong (e.g. you forgot to press
record or it’s really bad quality) it’s easier to just do the interview again there
and then than to get home and find you had wasted your (and your
Recording on the phone/Skype
Sometimes it’s just not possible to go and meet an interviewee in person. But
there are ways round this. Bear in mind that while it’s not illegal in the UK to
record a phone conversation, it’s only polite to tell the person you’re recording
them, especially if you want to broadcast it.
The simple solution - just put your phone on speakerphone and hold the
recorder/mic by the speaker. This works best on landlines, as you can get
some odd interference from mobiles. Try and judge the distance you need to
hold it, so that your voice and the voice on the phone aren’t at dramatically
Some Smartphones may enable you to record conversations. There are also
recording apps available for iPhone.
Here are some devices that can be used for recording from a phone:
• http://www.telephonerecorder.co.uk/recording/connectors/160.htm (this
is an in-ear device)
You can also use Skype to talk to people, and record the conversation. You
may be able to do this with audio recording/editing software installed on your
computer. Skype can be a bit cleaner than a phone line. Here are some
useful recording programmes:
• http://www.ecamm.com/mac/callrecorder/ (for Mac)
Transferring files to the computer
It’s a good idea transfer audio files onto your own computer as soon as
possible, then delete them from your recorder to free up space. I’m sure I
don’t need to remind you to back up your files regularly... Most recorders
work as external USB drives. Make sure you disconnect your device properly,
according to the instructions, as getting it wrong can do bad things to the
Name your files in a consistent manner that seems sensible to you. A good
format to use is Intervieweename_date_yourinitials, or something similar.
A note on music
Be careful when using music in your podcasts or other audio/video. Dropping
in that number 1 pop track can get you into trouble with rights – not good for
you or your organisation if you get caught! Here are some possible solutions:
• Use free library music. Have a Google around (for example
http://www.freelibrarymusic.com/ ) You can also buy CDs of copyright-
free library music. Some of it is quite good. A lot of it isn’t...
• Write your own! My colleague and I are both musicians, and we wrote
and recorded the Cancer Research UK podcast theme tunes and
‘stings’. If you have talented musicians in your organisation, seek them
out and use them! It’s a good idea to draw up a rights agreement for
this, so it’s clear who owns the music, although this might be covered
in a person’s employment contract.
• Use unsigned bands – many are very keen to get their music out to a
wider audience. Ask around friends or trawl Myspace for unsigned
bands that fit with what you want. While they still have copyright over
their music, the rights situation for broadcast is slightly different. Make
sure you draw up an agreement with them about what you want to use
the track(s) for.
• Commission and pay a composer or band to write something for you.
Top tips for a top interview
• Find a suitable location (quiet, or right kind of ambient noise) and make sure
you’re both happy and comfortable.
• Try and sit close to your interviewee. Next to them is good, rather than
facing them, so you can get the mic between you.
• ALWAYS start the interview, once the tape is rolling, by asking for the
interviewee’s name and where they’re from. This is invaluable when it
comes to listening back to your footage, especially if you haven’t labelled it
properly. If they do it well, you can sometimes use this in a finished
package, to let a person effectively introduce themselves.
• Keep eye contact, smile and nod! This is very reassuring. You may need to
flick your eyes away to the recorder to check it is rolling, or how long you
have been recording for, but don’t stare into space or fix on your recording
• Support your “mic arm” at the elbow with your other hand – it gets
surprisingly heavy after a very short time.
• Avoid cable noise by wrapping the cable around your mic hand and
maintaining a firm grip. Avoid moving your fingers on the mic, as the sound
will be picked up.
• Avoid making noises while a person is talking, or talking over them. This can
be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to edit out. Especially watch out for
making “uh-huh…. Yes…” type noises while people are speaking – it’s
easily done but it makes you sound really stupid! Smile and nod silently
instead to encourage your interviewee.
• If your interviewee is going on and on for ages, a good way to get them to
break is to take an obvious breath and look as if you’re about to start
speaking – but do this quietly! This usually makes people grind to a stop.
• If you are planning on making a “package”, try and record about 30s-1min of
“ambient” (background) sound at the end of the interview, particularly if you
are in quite a noisy place. This can be useful for editing purposes. Also look
out for interesting sound effects that might be relevant (eg. beeping
machines, children playing, people walking into buildings and saying hello...)
Once you’ve finished a hard day’s recording, listen back to it carefully, either
on the recorder or on the computer. Listen with a critical ear – was it a good
interview? Did you get all the story out? Are there any great soundbites? What
would you have done differently? And yes – you will probably hate the sound
of your own voice!
If you’re planning on editing your footage – and especially if someone else is
editing it for you - go through your recording and “log” it, noting down the
times when the interviewee answers a new question, or says something
particularly interesting. For example:
1min30: “My lab is working on bowel cancer and we recently made an exciting
2min20-2min40: Describes gene mapping technique
3min: “I couldn’t have done this without Cancer Research UK – thank you to
all our supporters.”
Once you get more experienced, you will find you can almost do this “by ear”
as you go along during the interview. But it’s still useful, especially in very
long and/or rambling interviews.
(c) September 2010, Dr Kat Arney, Cancer Research UK