Journalism 101: What do I use to record an interview?



Last week, one of my dear readers posted this comment:

Hey Aliya (and fellow writers), got a totally non-blog-related question for you:

I got an interview tomm with sonia sanchez. Is there a way I can record the conversation while on my blackberry (conducting the interview on the phone and also record on the bb)?

I immediately broke out in hives when I read this. I love this dear reader. (She was the first person to make me feel like a real blogger by screaming FIRST! in my comments section. Heh.)

But her comment was perplexing.

She wanted to know how to record an interview…on her Blackberry?

I don’t even like the way that sounds. Now, if she wanted to just play around and maybe record audio for her blog or something fun, by all means, use your newfangled devices. But an interview with Sonia Sanchez? I’m assuming it’s for publication. Why take chances with recording on a Blackberry? That can’t be reliable! Or is it?

Started me to thinking about what I use to record. And the truth is, it’s taken me ten years to find the right equipment.

When I first started out, I used a plain old cassette recorder and the big tapes:


Pretty reliable. Needed new batteries every ten seconds but besides that, the recorders are durable. But the tapes are not. I have hundreds of interviews on cassette that I worry will never be heard again. I’d love to transfer them to digital files. But who has time (and money) for that? Not I. So on my front porch they sit, gathering dust.

I fell out of love with cassette tapes when the ribbons began to get stuck. Nothing worse than coming back to your computer and having to sit there and re-spool your tape with a pencil and pray that the audio is still there. *shudder*


A few years later, I switched over to mini-recorders and mini-tapes:


Pure whackness. Not as durable. Not as reliable. And awful audio. And the tiny tapes get lost easier. Fell out of love with that method before I walked out of Radio Shack.

The worst part of audio tapes was that you had to always keep one eye on the tape. When it stopped, you had to turn it over. That was always a moment I dreaded. You’re in mid-interview. And the subject is completely relaxed and speaking freely on some traumatic event that you just know will be in your story. And you see that little button pop up, like that little joint on the Thanksgiving turkey, signifying that your time is up: Right your mother died. oh, can you hold those tears one second? I need to flip my tape. Oh, this is the second side. Did I flip this side already? Yeah, I did. Let me just open up this packet of tapes. You have a pair of scissors? Great. Give me one second. Oops. Can’t seem to close the deck. Oof. There. Okay. You were saying?

Tapes just had to go.

When the digital age hit hard, I copped an I-pod. And then I found this little contraption.


It was love at first sight. I took my i-pod everywhere anyway. Now I could stick in a microphone and have a recorder at the ready?! Awesome!

The best part was that I could download the interview directly into my I-tunes folder. Crisp, clean audio that I could play over and over without damaging the file. Very wonderful.

Until that day in Atlanta.

*cue thunder and lightning here*

I was in Atlanta, interviewing Big Boi’s wife. Her name is Sherlita Patton and she had a super-cute clothing boutique at the time. Sherlita didn’t really want to be interviewed but I’d worn her down until she finally agreed.

When your subject is wary, you have to focus on making them feel comfortable. You can’t keep darting your eyes down to check on your recorder. You can’t hold your breath, praying that the red light is still on. You have to lock eyes with your subject and get your Barbara Walters on. Nod your head approvingly, murmur sounds of understanding, mutter girl, i know that’s right when necessary. While all the while, taking note of their body language and their surroundings.

And when I’m doing an interview, I usually have a notebook and a pen in my lap. I can’t just depend on audio to pick up everything, I also scribble quotes as much as I can.

So Sherlita is slowly opening up, telling me how she met Big Boi, her thoughts on his musical partnership with Andre 3000, her children…

I glance down. And my I-pod is not recording.

Any writer will tell you, this is the worst feeling in the world.

Now what do you do?

You start writing. Fast.

I scribbled and scribbled as fast as I could, praying my I-pod would restart. I could hear it making a sick whirring noise and it did not sound good. I was distracted and I’m sure my subject could tell.

Finally, she got a shipment and needed to sign off on some boxes. I excused myself and tried to see what was up with my recorder. No luck. Even called Mac tech support right there in the store, whispering to the tech guy to help me please. No luck. I pod was completely frozen.

I had to hand write the rest of the interview. I think my hand is still cramped.

My I-pod worked perfectly fine after that and I never figured out what happened. Still scared me. I tried out several different I-pod recorders. But I never found the perfect one that made me feel secure.

(One thing I did like about the I-pod: celebrities loved it and it made a good ice-breaker. Every time I pulled it out to interview someone, they would say, you can record on your Ipod? Where’d you get that? Show me! Diddy, Christina Milian and Usher all copped recorders for their I-pods after peeping mine…)

About a year ago, I finally found the recorder I think I’ll use forever. It’s this joint right here.


Nothing too flashy. It’s a digital recorder and I can download audio onto my computer. The key is that it’s just a digital recorder. Unlike the I-pod, it doesn’t have extra bells and whistles that could cause it to lock up or fail. Takes two triple A batteries that last a good long time.

This joint is super basic. Press red button to Record. Press triangle to Play. Press square to Stop. It’s small enough that it doesn’t get in the way of the interview. And once you lock it, you don’t have to worry about it turning on by accident. You can throw it in your bag and it’s safe. Very light too. I carry two of these with me to every interview. And when I’m interviewing by phone, I turn on the speakerphone and set the recorder up nearby.

Though I must say, I don’t like that set up. I hate using speakerphone during a phone interview. Logistically, I just don’t like it. If the subject is on a cell phone, it can be awkward. I find myself talking too loud and repeating myself or asking the subject to repeat themselves. Generally, I need to cradle the phone during a phone interview, which means I can’t record. I’ve heard of recording devices you can just stick on the actual phone. But I’ve never tried it…

For now, I’m sticking with my RCA joint.

Dear readers, what do you use for interviews? Are you still using (gasp!) cassette tapes? Do you have any experience with the recorder that sticks onto the phone? Did you ever use the I-pod recorder? Are there some advances in recording devices that I’m not up on? Do you have interview horror stories because of faulty recording devices? And to my dear reader who inspired me to write this post, how did your interview go? Did you use your Blackberry?

I’d love to hear from you…

25 Responses to “Journalism 101: What do I use to record an interview?”

  1. Alisha Says:

    I have a Sony voice recorder that I use for interviews and to grade my students’ speeches. The only thing I don’t like is it’s not enough time on it. It’s digital and it may have about three hours on it. I’m not a big techie, so I don’t know if this is normal or not. I like to keep certain interviews on there, so just in case there’s an issue, I have it.

    Another question: How long do you keep interviews? Do you immediately delete them once you submit your stories?

  2. Aliya S. King Says:

    @Alisha: I never ever ever ever delete interviews. Ever. I download them onto my computer and they live there forever. When my computer gets full, I transfer them to an external hard drive.

  3. la negrita Says:

    To the horror of (I’m sure) of everyone who is about to read this…I still do it the old school, pen and pad way. But I haven’t had any high-profile assignments that would cause me to worry enough to use one. If I miss a direct quote, I paraphrase. I DO have an old school joint that you hook up to the phone (and a tape recorder) and I bought a digital Olympus something or another last month. Just haven’t used either yet.

  4. Aliya S. King Says:

    @la negrita. *shudder*

  5. aka NWSO Says:

    Speakerphone is the worst, you get radio signal feedback on the old mini cassette recorders which slows up transcribing something awful. But back in the day I had no choice since I didn’t have a land line. Then a wise friend put me on to this:

    It’s an Olympus Telephone Pickup device. Basically you plug it into your recorder and put the other end in your ear like iPod earbuds and then hold the phone over that ear. The mic on the TP device records the person on phone and your voice. It’s simply a wire but I I think it’s magic. I’ve sworn by it ever since. For some reason only Radio Shack seems to carry it, but last time I checked for a spare they said they were out and were making a new one. It’s a life saver as you can record on cell, cordless phones etc without any crazy connection process or feedback

  6. la negrita Says:


    Yoooo, I got my telephone recording device from Radio Shack. That place is classic. Each time I past one and wonder how on earth they stay in business, I remember it’s for reasons like this. Where else is great grandpa gonna get all the materials he needs to build a radio from scratch??!? Exactly.

  7. paul cantor Says:

    I use the olympus ds-20 to record.

    I transfer the .wma files to computer, convert to .aiff then load them up in a program called Transcribe! for mac, which allows you to slow audio to a variety of speeds, therefore giving you the ability to transcribe in real time, without having to keep rewinding the tape. Seriously, if I couldn’t do this simple thing in order to get transcriptions done faster, I would quit writing altogether lol. Transcribing is quite possibly the worst torture that could ever be inflicted on a human being.

    For phoners I use a separate land line, and I have a jack from radio shack that plugs into the received on one end, the recorder in the middle, and then back into the phone.

  8. paul cantor Says:

    sorry I meant DS-2, the 20’s cheaper little cousin

  9. Aliya S. King Says:

    @paul: you lost me at .wma files.

  10. aqua Says:

    I was interviewing ?uestlove of the Roots a few years back and I was still using a Radio Shack recorder with the cassette tapes. When I broke out the recorder ?uest proceeded to smirk and say, “Vintage huh?”

    Since then I’ve been using this Olympus WS-210S digital recorder. I can plug it into my computer’s USB, download the wav files and keep it moving. And if I fiddle with the audio sensitivity settings I can practically record someone’s breathing.

    I got the same jack everyone mentioned from Radio Shack to record phone convos. I sometimes use a service that gives you a toll free # that you can have routed to any phone # and will send you an MP3 of the convo. However, I always double up with the recorder (just in case) and avoid cell phones for interviews.

  11. Dionne Says:

    I learned a long time ago that you can’t always rely on a recorder, so I always take good notes. When I worked at a newspaper I found that I didn’t always have time to go back and transcribe when you have an hour or 30-minute deadline. So you just learn to take GREAT notes and create your own shorthand.

    But there are times, especially when you’re doing a longer, feature piece when you can record. So in those cases I depend on my tried and true Sony digital recorder. There’s no bells and whistles, it’s small and get’s the job done.

  12. Tanisha Says:

    Like Paul, I also use the DS-2 to record. It fits nice in my bag and the batteries last forever. I love the software it has that allows me to slow down the audio to transcribe. Transcribing is a pain, but pressing and flipping over tapes on my old school mini-tape recorder was thee worse!

    I need to find that jack that Paul is talking about. I have had the chance to use a recorder service by an editor but havent taken advantage of that service yet.

  13. Aliya S. King Says:

    good stuff here. Y’all are up on some stuff I need in my life!

  14. Golianopoulos Says:

    Mini-tapes. Still.

  15. la negrita Says:

    Glad to see I’m in good company with Olympus! Had no idea it was a writer’s fav. I picked it up randomly at Circuit City’s liquidation sale.

    @aliya, I think I should be shuddering too! There have been a few times I’ve started to break out in a cold sweat over not having a recording device, but I have to remind myself to have faith in my reporting abilities. I’ma do better, though. :-p

  16. la negrita Says:

    Oh and I have the Olympus DS-40, for anyone who cares.

  17. Thembi Says:

    I put phone interviews on speakerphone and use my Macbook (aka My Boo) to record an iMovie and just ignore the video or cover it with a piece of paper if Im feeling unpretty. If its a face to face interview a Macbook mic will pick up speech from a pretty good distance also.

  18. Heather F. Says:

    Glad to know my question didn’t go to waste :P Thanks Aliya!

    That sanchez interview was maaadd last minute and I was off work when she finally agreed. I don’t want to go the dreaded speakerphone route (imovie? that works?). Yucks! Like the homies @NakedWithSocks and @la negrita pointed out, there are recording devices for phones but I don’t have a land line at home.

    BUT this post was so on time. My beloved sony digital recorder was stolen (at church of all places!) so I’m looking for a new one now. I’ll def check out that Olympus phone device.

    Oh. I caved in and drove back to the office in the pouring rain to do the interview using one of those radio shack phone recorders. It was totally worth it. Story was on point. Check it out:

  19. Aliya S. King Says:

    @thembi: this is TH’s method. It makes me uncomfortable. Doesn’t imovie make a humongously large file? Do you extract audio or just leave it there in movie format?

  20. Aliya S. King Says:

    @golianopolous: woooow.

  21. Newmie Newms Says:

    My horror story for the schadenfreudic readers:

    A few years back, had a cover story for a national mag with a very well-known DJ/producer. We chopped it up in his studio for a few hours the first day and about 30 min of that was actual sit-down interview. Next day, we hung out at the studio for about 4 hours and 90 minutes of that was actual interview. I had great background, interview went great, i’m top of the friggin’ world.

    I get home to listen to the playback. 1st interview: Fine for the first 3 minutes then fades into nothingness. 2nd interview: zero sound. I adjusted the settings. I called the recorder company. Nada. Gone forever. I ain’t gonna lie, I gotta little choked up.

    Luckily, I had some notes written down and some major quotes I wanted to use but I was still screwed. This dude gave me a day and a half of his schedule and now I had to tell him I needed more. Do I lie to him? Come out and tell him the truth and see what happens? I wound up calling him and telling him that I lost about 30 minutes of the interview but it was an important part and would he mind hopping on the phone and going over a few things again. I wound up getting the important questions in (with a diff recorder) and all worked out well.

    Oh, and i figured out the problem with the old recorder. When you adjusted the volume, it would still record but just fade out so nothing is audible.

    So now I second Aqua’s Olympus recommendation…I use this:

    and it’s served me well….unless you are detailing every second of Diddy’s tantric sex-a-thon, it has more recording time that you’ll ever need and just pops right into the computer.

  22. Aliya S. King Says:

    @newmie newms. oh man. worst.feeling.ever! The whole recording process makes me super angsty. good thing you were able to get said DJ back on the phone!

  23. pharohmartin Says:

    For phone interviews I use google voice. They call in to my cell phone and I can record right thru my celly and the recording saves as an MP3 online.

  24. Aliya S. King Says:

    @pharohmartin: Whoa. You’re blowing my mind with that one. But wait. What if you’re waiting all day for someone to call you? As soon as they call into Google Voice? How does that work?

  25. pharohmartin Says:

    @aliya Nah Google Voice assigns you a number and that number goes to whatever phone(s) you want it to. I have it going to my cell phone. The person being interviewed calls it and your in business.

    I also use that Radio Shack device that Anslem is talking about. The only thing about that is you can only use it on land line phones so it kind of limits your mobility.

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