While interviewing experts and sources via email has become more acceptable and commonplace, it lacks in two important areas:
- It lacks spontaneity, as the person being interviewed can prune and polish his or her remarks. Thus, the answers you receive may not be “honest” reactions, and you may end up with a less lively article and one that is not as unique or noteworthy as it could have been.
- When answers lead to additional questions, you can ask them immediately over the phone or in person – not so easy when you have to wait (and hope) for follow-up emails. If the person simply stops replying to emails or your deadline arrives before the reply does, your article will have to go in lacking that information.
The telephone offers advantages
In addition to being more helpful in those two areas, using your telephone can make it possible to interview out-of-towners and those too busy to sit down for an in-person interview. I have a tape recorder connected to my phone at all times in order to capture my phone interviews in full.
Very important – Although U.S. federal law only requires one-party consent to the recording of a telephone conversation, in some states, all parties must be aware that a phone conversation is being recorded. This article will give you some idea of the laws in various countries and states. (Caution: Never take a Wikipedia article as gospel; but it will at least suggest where you need to do more serious investigation.)
To be safe, always inform your source that you are recording the interview. This should pose no problem if you tell the person you are talking to her for the purpose of writing an article or book, and if you explain that you are recording the conversation in order to maintain accuracy and so as not to misquote her or imply the wrong meaning. In 30+ years of recording both in-person and phone interviews, I have not had a single problem. Once or twice there was hesitation, but they accepted my explanation.
Equipment you’ll need
To record my interviews, I have long used a standard GE recorder that has a mic connection. Today, many writers prefer the smaller micro cassettes or digital recorders, but because I have an older Panasonic tape transcribing machine with a foot pedal that uses standard cassettes, I’ve stuck with the standard recorder. My preferred phone-to-recorder device is the
Telephone Logger Patch (TLP-102), available through DynaMetric — priced at around $56. My first one lasted several years before I had to replace it; the second is still working another several years later.
Prior to the TLP-102, I used a Telephone Recording Control from Radio Shack. It worked fine and cost only $25, but I had to replace it more often, so I find the TLP-102 more cost-effective.
In the beginning, I had tried the cheaper ($5 at the time) suction cup devices, also available at Radio Shack, but they proved poor in recording quality, inconvenient, and most expensive in the long run because they had to be replaced frequently. (And nothing’s more frustrating than thinking you’ve recorded an interview only to discover the recording hookup malfunctioned.)
Today, if I were to transcribe as many interviews as I used to, I would use a digital recorder and software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking to transfer it to text. Or, if I had access to cell phone service (not available in our valley) and owned a smart phone, I would search for an app (or apps) to do the recording and transcribing. (If you have equipment suggestions in this area, based on your own experience, feel free to comment below.)
Another advantage to recording interviews digitally – you can offer to send a copy of the mp3 file to the interviewee, which can be reassuring to anyone who remains hesitant about being recorded.
Setting up the interview
Once you have located your expert in the field or source who has experienced what you’re researching, write down a list of questions you need answered. Locate the phone number via websites, online phone directories, or print directories (your library may have several from around the country — or may subscribe to online phone directories). Then place your call.
When dealing with business people, the best times to call are usually between 10:00 am and noon, and from 3:00 pm to 4:30 pm their time. Monday mornings and Friday afternoons are usually the worst times to catch a business person in the office and able to spend 5 to 20 minutes on the phone. Also take into consideration time patterns of that specific industry. For example, never try to reach someone in the restaurant business from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm or from 5:00 pm through their dinner hour, unless given the OK by someone on staff. When tracking down people in associations, universities and large corporations, you will likely need to go through their media relations department. Fortunately, this can usually be done via email, and they will often get the expert’s OK and set up an phone appointment time for you.
When dealing with individuals, consider what their schedules might be according to their individual work and family needs. Make your initial contact at a time they are likely to not be rushed.
Identify yourself, the publication or website you’re doing the article for, and state that you are researching an article (or book) on such and such to whomever you reach. I’ve found that secretaries and assistants are much more willing to help you reach their bosses if you’re straightforward in your requests. Emphasize that you will need only about 5 minutes (or longer if this source could play a larger role in your piece and you have more than four or five questions). I have had telephone interviews go over half an hour, but this is usual only with sources who love to talk about the topic in question.
Once you reach your source, again identify yourself and that you are doing an article for such and such magazine on such and such topic, and state that you would like to ask him a few questions. “Is this a good time or should I call back at a better time?” (Obviously, you would ask this only if you are not calling by appointment.) If this is a bad time, ask when a more convenient time would be and set an appointment for a return call. If the source says this time is fine (and a surprising number will say it’s OK), press the record button on your recorder, read your “I’m recording because” spiel, and begin asking your questions. After the interview, be sure to thank the source for his or her input, noting that you realize he’s busy and that you appreciate his taking the time to talk to you.
Don’t hesitate to call anyone. I’ve found that the bigger they are, the easier they are to talk to and the more willing they are to talk. It’s only the bottom-of-the-totem-pole yokels who are too filled with self-importance to divulge their “secrets” or share their knowledge.
- Call other time zones after 5:00 pm (if you’re in the East), or before 8:00 am (if you’re in the West), reach people in the prime of their day, and save yourself money if you have off-peak lower long-distance rates.
- By using your telephone, you can quote a number of authorities from around the country to nationalize your article.
- Even if you’re doing a nearby “drivable” interview, if you don’t need to take photos, consider the cost of gas, tolls and driving time to when evaluating whether a phone interview might work as well as in-person.
- Using the phone can help you reach people who are very important and very busy. I recall interviewing a prominent physician and researcher while he was on his way home. The university’s media relations person said that was the only time to catch him, so she gave me his cell phone number.
How journalists decide whether to interview by phone, email or face-to-face