Simon Owens
Jul 13, 2016 · 3 min read

By Simon Owens

As a journalist and freelance writer I conduct a lot of phone interviews. In my early days as a newspaper reporter I’d awkwardly position the phone between my head and neck and then type the source’s answers into a Google Doc, but this not only led to imperfect quotes, but also often kept me from focusing on what the person was actually saying. Which then led to bad follow-up questions.

Then I discovered the special earpiece microphone that easily allows one to audio record phone calls:

It was a godsend, allowing me to conduct interviews handsfree so I could focus entirely on the substance of the interview. Sure, transcribing the interview was laborious, but it ensured I had a much fuller picture of the conversation and allowed me to grab better, more accurate quotes (and once I could afford it, I began paying someone to transcribe the interviews for me).

Except here’s the thing: I’m now more sensitive than ever to bad audio during interviews because it makes my job especially hard. There’s nothing worse than recording an interview with someone who took the time out of their day to speak to you and then realizing afterward that at least 50 percent of the conversation was unintelligible. Not only am I wasting the source’s time, but I’m missing out on valuable information that could otherwise be incorporated into my piece.

So starting today, I’m going to try to implement a set of guiding principles that will increase the likelihood that a phone interview will actually be useable. I’ll not only follow these guidelines myself, but will also forward this article to potential sources prior to an interview so they can prime their surroundings for better audio. Hopefully other journalists can refer to this list as well:

  1. If at any point during a phone call you realize the audio is bad, don’t stick it out out of politeness. Just explain to the source that the connection is bad and that you’ll call them back. They usually understand. If you still struggle to get a good connection, consider rescheduling the call.
  2. Landlines almost always provide better audio than cell phones.
  3. Try to avoid using speaker phones whenever possible. Always avoid cell phone speaker phones.
  4. Before a Skype call, restart your computer so there are as few background programs running as possible. Audio calls are better than video calls because they take up less bandwidth and are less likely to stall out.
  5. The source should try their best to avoid loud, open areas. Airports. City streets. Open offices with nearby noisy coworkers.
  6. I’m especially bad at being able to understand people speaking in thick accents. I’ve found it easier in those cases to just conduct those interviews over IM chat.
  7. It’s extremely hard to transcribe an interview for which there were two sources on the call at the same time, especially if those two people are of the same gender and have similar voices. When possible, try to schedule two separate phone calls.
  8. If a source says a word you can’t completely decipher (this often happens when they’re mentioning a product you’ve never heard of), stop them and ask them to spell it.

Those are the principles I’ve come up with off the top of my head. Are there any others I’m missing?

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Thoughts On Journalism

Taking on the problems and challenges in journalism. Spreading ideas, passions and new ways of thinking about media. A publication run by Media Lab Bayern.

Simon Owens

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Tech and media journalist. Email me:

Thoughts On Journalism

Taking on the problems and challenges in journalism. Spreading ideas, passions and new ways of thinking about media. A publication run by Media Lab Bayern.

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