A Rant against Tape Recorders

I’ve waged a 29-year campaign against tape recorders, because they undermine the basic skills of writers. Taping can make you slow, literal-minded, and a bad listener.

Effective interviewing involves creating and maintaining a relationship of temporary trust between yourself and your subject. We try to turn every interview into a conversation. The tape recorder reminds subjects that other people will hear what they’re saying, so they go all formal and make speeches. They give guarded, safe answers. They talk funny.

I once interviewed a star writer in person, with a tape recorder running. Suddenly, he leapt up and hit the STOP button, saying, “I can’t stand for my colleagues to hear this.” The machine made him self-conscious and afraid.

Sources can use tape recorders as a weapon. You’re setting up for a tough interview, and your subject lifts his big, black recorder onto the desk, and pushes the REC button. He’s just sent you a message: “My lawyer will listen to this, bud!” So you slap your bigger, blacker recorder onto the desk beside his, and hit your REC button. You’ve just replied, “So will mine, buster!” You’ll get nothing useful from that session because you both poisoned the atmosphere. Lots of “No Comment.”

Taping encourages lazy notetaking and, therefore, lazy listening. With the tape recorder running and (theoretically) getting everything that’s said, you think you can relax and let it do the work. Pretty soon, you’re not concentrating, and your follow-up questions get fuzzy. And when you listen to that tape, it has a big surprise for you. The machine failed; your tape is blank!

TAPE RECORDERS ALWAYS FAIL AT THE WORST MOMENTS.

Writers tape conversations mostly because they’re anxious to get the quotes right. However, most quotes have to be “cleaned up” a little, sometimes a lot, to make them publishable. One newspaper chain I worked with required all its beginning reporters to pass a 60-word-per-minute shorthand test. The writers then put long, verbatim quotes in their stories, making them unreadable.

Mostly we paraphrase sources to make what they say intelligible, and having the recorded quote available tempts us to quote. Bad quotes make bad explanation; they make reading drag.

Rather than depend on the tape, teach yourself to listen intently and take good notes. Your follow-up questions will improve because you listened better. Your notebook will contain only essential quotes, not pages of blither.

Taping encourages procrastination. Many writers try desperately to find some reason, any excuse, not to start typing. And their friendly tape recorders sit there waiting, singing this siren song: “Maybe you should just listen to the whole tape just in case you missed something.” Give in to that temptation, and you’ve just killed two, three, seven hours. You might even tempt yourself to transcribe the whole tape. Procrastinators are ingenious time wasters.

Despite all my growling above, there are times when you might use a tape recorder, such as in hostile interviews where lawyers will get involved later. You would need one for interviewing foreign-language speakers when you’re not fluent in their tongue; later, a native speaker can help you catch nuances and check your translation. You must tape any interview that will turn into a transcript, such as “Question and Answer” format. Finally, you would tape any interview with a person of historical importance. If you have the great fortune to get a session with Nelson Mandela, for example, tape it and later donate it to an archive.

Can you use tape recorders in ways that won’t undo you? Of course. Use a small, extremely reliable machine with brand-new or freshly-recharged batteries. Use it only as a back-up to great listening and notetaking. Write in your notebook the counter number of important things the subject says, and listen only to those marked items. And always remember the temptations that accompany taping.

Got any good anecdotes about taping? I’d like to hear them.

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Published in: on March 10, 2009 at 2:58 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Railing against tape recorders (now digital) strikes me as the equivalent of blaming a poor presentation not on the presenter, but on PowerPoint. The fault lies not with the recorder, but with the person using it.

    I conduct interviews for my bi-monthly newsletter and I always tape. I tell the people I’m taping that I do it for accuracy. Then I take modest notes, but what’s really important is that because I’m taping, I can actually listen to the person and not fret about getting everything on paper. I can also frame follow-up questions rather than following my script.

    I download my interviews to my computer, type my modest notes, then listen to the interview and fill in the blanks. I’m listening for the salient quote, not the run-on sentence, and for the interesting fact I missed in my handwritten notes.

    I’ve become such a fan of digital recorders that I actually bought a new (and better) one a couple of years ago and have my eye on still a better one (it records in stereo).

    In the end, the fault lies within us, not our tools.

  2. I generally agree with the rant. As an editor, I can tell when someone is working from a transcript. Overly long, 4-5-6 sentence quotes appear because they’re so easy to paste in and because of the persistent belief that direct quotes of any quality make a story lively.
    As a reporter I used a recorder for the kinds of situations you described, as well as one other. I had a source who was very knowledgeable but incredibly mercurial. He spoke very quickly and his conversation took rapid (often fascinating) turns. There was no way to keep up without a recorder.
    I have also had the humbling experience of comparing my notes and memory of an interview to a recording. In the process of thinking of the next question, listening to the current response and taking notes, you miss stuff. That’s the trade-off to the more relaxed atmosphere you get without a recorder.

  3. I enjoyed the rant greatly! I’ve worked with a number of reporters and they all seem to come down on one side or the other of this debate. I can see the benefits of using one, and of not having one present. I suppose it partly depends on your speaker. I wouldn’t mind myself I can’t see that it would make much difference since my speech would be recorded by the journalist’s pen anyway. But I think some celebs who keep all their details stashed away in Tamper Evident Tape and then turn round and spill everything to reporters could be put off by the recorder. It’s just a visual reminder of what’s happening anyway – the whole point of an interview is to say things, they’ll be recorded either way!

  4. Dear Purple;
    Thanks for your response. As Tom Berner says, it ain’t the machine but how you use it. Don


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