Sunday, April 13, 2014

How not to screw up one of the most basic jobs of a radio producer/intern…Also known as everything I did wrong when I was first starting out.

This is known in the radio world as a tape sync or double-ender. Here’s how it works: The interviewer is on the phone asking questions, while you’re there in person recording the interviewee. Think of yourself as the human microphone stand.

When I was first starting out in radio, this was a quick and easy way to make money, and also an excellent way to meet people in radio I hoped to work with as peers. You know, an awesome opportunity to make a great impression, unless you’re me. In my case it was an awesome opportunity to find new and different ways to screw up this oh-so-simple task.

Here’s a short rundown of my most terrifically bad and embarrassing mistakes.

Being late/getting lost/parking in a tow away zone:

I was late for a tape sync in the South of Market neighborhood in San Francisco. I would have been almost on time, except there was no parking. So I just kept circling the neighborhood, hoping to find a spot on the street. Finally, a van pulled out of a spot and I swooped in. I got out, couldn’t find a parking meter, noted a small yellow sign indicating it was a loading zone and rushed off to record the interview. When I got back to the spot, my car was long gone, because it turns out the city of San Francisco is serious about guarding its loading zones. Towing fees: $150, payment for the tape sync: $50. Lesson learned: Priceless.

Letting the batteries die:

It was the summer of 2000 and Ralph Nader was the Green Party’s nominee for president. The host of the show I was working for (in the most junior capacity possible) was going to interview him remotely, while I served as a human mic stand across town. I brought along an intern to show her how it was done.

I pulled out my brand new recorder, got set up, held my microphone just right and started recording. A couple of minutes into the interview I looked down and the digital recorder was completely dead. No letters or numbers on the screen. Nothing.  It turns out the recorder was faulty, and although I had charged it for hours, it didn’t charge up its rechargeable battery.

I had to stop the interview and replace the battery. As I fumbled to replace it, the host on the other end of the line was so angry, I am quite certain Nader could hear him yelling.

They had to completely restart the interview, because the recorder also erased the recording…just for good measure, I guess.

Nader was totally gracious. “I don’t understand these newfangled devices either,” he said with a warm chuckle.

I sure showed the intern.  Though, it turns out I showed her how it isn’t supposed to be done.

Forgetting to send it in:

The interview I recorded at the Levi’s corporate headquarters in San Francisco started like any other. This time I actually was on time, and found a parking space on the street without much trouble.

A reporter from Marketplace, based in their Washington, DC bureau, conducted the interview over the phone, while I recorded. He e-mailed me the address to send it to along with a Fed Ex account number. I was supposed to send him the recording right away (this was before reliable fast FTP sites, and I physically had to send it to him) as is standard with all tape syncs.

Instead, I put my recording gear in my bag, tossed it in the trunk of the car, drove home and never thought about it again. That is, until I got a call from the reporter asking for the Fed Ex tracking number because he hadn’t gotten the tape yet. You know that sinking feeling? That one that comes when you’ve screwed up terribly and there’s nothing to do but admit it.

I rushed to a Fed Ex office and sent it to him overnight. Unfortunately, his story had to be delayed.  I was afraid I would never work again, certainly never for him, and probably never for Marketplace either.

Almost exactly 10 years later, I was temping at Marketplace in their DC bureau when I realized that reporter whose story I temporarily screwed up was sitting in the office right next to me. We were colleagues. I finally got up the nerve to ask if he remembered a tape sync that went terribly awry, and the unprofessional producer who forgot to send him the tape. He didn’t. And thank goodness for that.

What should you take from this?

Please learn from my mistakes. And don’t repeat them.

Realize that you will probably screw up at some point along the way. It’s just a given. Even the easy parts of making radio are pretty hard.

It is possible to recover from catastrophic mistakes and somehow become a White House Correspondent for NPR (one who is very forgiving).