Putting the sights on sound

By Julio Avila

During the Spring 2016 semester, I interned at NPR’s Connecticut affiliate WSHU. The station had just opened a new Long Island bureau to expand its Long Island coverage. It was a small bureau, not much larger than the lower newsroom at the School of Journalism. It was headed by WSHU’s news director, Dan Katz, whom I first met last semester and a few times during the winter break.

The bureau had all the essentials of a radio bureau: work stations, a recording room with a microphone, telephone, switcher and computer with Adobe Audition, and even a meeting room.

My job was to produce stories either that I would read or that the anchors live in Connecticut would read. At the start, it was a challenge learning new terms: “spot,” “reader,” “wrap,” “voicer” and “actuality.” The first three all mean the same thing, an audio piece. “Voicer” is a voice-over, and “actuality” is just another word for “soundbite.”

My first day at the bureau was on the first day of classes for the “spring” semester. It wasn’t the first scheduled day of my internship, but I came in because of classes had been cancelled because of a snowstorm. I met all the other interns, and I met Dan again. I was surprised because I met Terry Sheridan, a reporter for WOR. I met him once before when I took JRN 391: Audio Journalism, and our professor, Connie Conway, invited him to speak in our class. Turns out Terry was to be our supervisor at the bureau

Learning the script format was hard at first because there are different formats for the kind of track produced. (A little tip for future interns– remember these phrases, and regardless of what you learned in JRN 310, don’t write scripts in all caps. They hate that.)

I did a lot of  phone interviews that I recorded in our sound booth. When out on location, I used one of the bureau’s portable audio recorders. I

Before writing a scripts, I researched a story or topic using sources such as press releases and background information I found through online searches. Then I would work on the interview audio and track with my voice-over.

Time is of the essence. Each day that I came into the bureau, I had a story to produce and deadlines were tight, a few hours tight. Up until then, I had had the luxury of deadlines that were days, even weeks, ahead. Here, it was crunch time all the time. Given my shifts were typically four hours, the gears always had to turn instantly. Whatever the story, whoever needed to be interviewed, whatever needed to be searched, it all had to be done.

I  immediately called sources for interviews and hoped that the source was available, even if an hour or two later. If not, I needed to find whoever I could talk that was close to what the original source could say or know.

If worse came to worst, I would end up with either a reader or a voicer if no one got back to me. What was amusing is how sometimes, sources would get back to you several hours later or the next day expecting an interview when you said a specific timeframe.

After the struggles of producing a story, going over the script with Terry, who helped me with my enunciation and voicing (sometimes voicing multiple times to slightly improve how I enunciated a particular word) I got the feeling of accomplishment. That feeling would grow if my piece aired on either All Things Considered or Morning Edition. Even if it was a reader, I would be in ecstasy knowing that I had written the script the anchor reading on the air.

As for stories, some were given and others were pitched. That’s another tip for future interns: Dan and Terry love ideas, so pitching is essential even if an idea might go nowhere.  A few of the stories I’ve done involved the Long Island Railroad. I think the LIRR spokesman, Salvatore Arena, already knows me. He has on occasion greeted me as if he’s known me for a long time.

Overall, a price can’t be put on everything I learned. And the experience was impeccable. Even the evenings re-tracking with Terry multiple times to make sure pronunciation and enunciation were perfect were all worth it. Working with everyone– Dan, Terry, the other interns, even WSHU’s long-time Long Island reporter, Charles Lane, and the host of Morning Edition, Tom Kuser– was a true treat.

My final suggestion to future interns is: If you have trouble pitching a story, remember one little phrase. It goes like this: “My story is about ‘X’ because ‘Y’–but did you know ‘Z?’”

Think about that for a while.